When we are in trouble and look for help we look for it in predictable places.
- We need more money to pay a debt or to fix a problem
- We need better connections (human or divine) to get an ally more powerful than ourselves to deliver us from an enemy more powerful than ourselves. (Balak last week)
Human history suggests that in fact our problem is almost always ourselves. This is the point that David Brooks tries to make over and over again in his book The Road to Character. Most of the chapters of the book are small biographical sketches where he tries to illustrate for us the ways that people who have accomplished notable things achieved some degree of mastery or control over themselves. Dwight Eisenhower, joint allied commander in Europe was one of his subjects.
One Halloween evening, when he was about ten, Eisenhower’s older brothers received permission to go out trick-or-treating, a more adventurous activity in those days than it is now. Ike wanted to go with them, but his parents told him he was too young. He pleaded with them, watched his brothers go, and then became engulfed by uncontrolled rage. He turned red. His hair bristled. Weeping and screaming, he rushed out into the front yard and began pounding his fists against the trunk of an apple tree, scraping the skin off and leaving his hands bloody and torn.
His father shook him, lashed him with a hickory switch, and sent him up to bed. About an hour later, with Ike sobbing into his pillow, his mother came up and sat silently rocking in the chair next to his bed. Eventually she quoted a verse from the Bible: “He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.”
Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 52). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Eisenhower would struggle with his temper and vengeance all of his life and only be able to succeed in his very political careers as allied commander and then President of the United States when he achieved some degree of self mastery.
American culture likes to imagine self-control is a function of the individual will, but Brooks wants us to explore how our cultures form us and what they enable us to do. Brooks looks at the cultural context of our formation to see how it prepares or inhibit our ability to succeed. He thinks it is important to see that Eisenhower was formed in Abilene Kansas.
In places like Abilene, Kansas, the big sins, left unchallenged, would have had very practical and disastrous effects. Sloth could lead to a failure of a farm; gluttony and inebriation to the destruction of a family; lust to the ruination of a young woman; vanity to excessive spending, debt, and bankruptcy.
In places like that, people had an awareness not only of sin but of the different kinds of sins and the different remedies for each. Some sins, such as anger and lust, are like wild beasts. They have to be fought through habits of restraint. Other sins, such as mockery and disrespect, are like stains. They can be expunged only by absolution, by apology, remorse, restitution, and cleansing. Still others, such as stealing, are like a debt. They can be rectified only by repaying what you owe to society. Sins such as adultery, bribery, and betrayal are more like treason than like crime; they damage the social order. Social harmony can be rewoven only by slowly recommitting to relationships and rebuilding trust. The sins of arrogance and pride arise from a perverse desire for status and superiority. The only remedy for them is to humble oneself before others.
Brooks, David (2015-04-14). The Road to Character (p. 56). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The World Has Flipped
Brooks’ thesis of his book is that as a culture we have lost this moral vocabulary and this worldview. In many ways our imaginations have flipped. The world of Eisenhower’s youth was imagined to be a dangerous one as the above quote suggests. The individual had to develop self-mastery so as not to fall victim to the temptations of the world. The world was a morally hazardous place where dangers without exploited weaknesses within to bring calamity and disaster.
This social imaginary is lost and replaced by one today that suggests exactly the opposite. The world, physical and spiritual, are not imagined to be dangerous and filled with adversaries, but open and full of potential. What the individual must do to take advantage of these possibilities is not to doubt their passions but to invest in them, to believe in themselves and shake off the limitations often in the form of conventional prohibitions. Social, civic, religious and culture restraints were once seen as allies in the individual’s quest of self mastery are now imagined to be enemies in the individual’s quest of self-exploration and expression.
Even though Brooks does not go into the metaphysical layer of this social imaginary most societies imagined that this goal of self-mastery was not only important for this life but also the next. One had to not just face themselves and their neighbors, they would one day have to face their God and give an accounting of their actions.
You Can Have it All
Brad and I are not legally married, nor do we ever plan to be, but there aren’t a lot of practical differences between us and a married couple. We’ve owned a home together, have a child together, and have every intention—although no promises—of staying together ‘til death do us part. We are hoping polyamory can help make that happen.
Four years into our relationship, we found ourselves in the typical rut of co-dependence, resentment, boredom, and fighting over the grocery bill. We’d had an unplanned baby, I’d quit my job to do attachment parenting full-time, and Brad was working long hours in a dungeon of a warehouse. I was stuck at home washing dishes, folding laundry and talking to a two-year-old, bored out of my mind. If we didn’t have anything to fight about, we’d find something, just to make life a little more interesting.
I had freed myself from the grips of government, religion, and parents. The only chains left to throw off were those on my sexuality—particularly the chains of monogamy.
The first authority I came to see as illegitimate was government, shortly after discovering Ron Paul in 2008. I stumbled upon his campaign like a rabbit hole that led me to question all of society’s rules. Soon after, I started to question my religion—Christianity. How much of it had been made up, twisted, and contrived—in collusion with the government—to support the powers that be?
Along with the fear of God, I cast off any respect for parental authority I once had. Since the punitive, authoritarian man in the clouds was no longer real to me, who was to say children should obey their parents? I educated myself about peaceful parenting and became determined to treat my daughter as a free, autonomous person with inalienable rights, not as my property.
Since we’ve discovered polyamory, we don’t care about new houses or new cars or vacations. What really makes us tick is the idea of falling in love, over and over and over again. Now, we have the best of both worlds: the security of a steady, stable partner, to have and to hold, and the sense of adventure and excitement at the thought of the unknown, the possibility of new romance around every corner, the butterflies in our stomachs we never thought we’d get the chance to feel again.
We’ve gotten a lot of warnings and admonitions from well-intentioned friends and family members that we’re going to destroy our relationship and hurt our daughter, but we feel exactly the opposite. For us, this is the perfect opportunity to save our relationship, spare our daughter from the heartbreak of a broken family, and give her the blessing of happy parents and extended family. Wish us luck!
Sara’s case illustrates the movement Brooks highlights well. The path to creating a life long partnership is not self-denial but self-maximization. I think most in Abilene Kansas would imagine Sara is naive mostly about her self. The individual is imagined as a relational consumer hoping to create temporary limited liability contractual relationships with other consumers. The assumption is that since they are adults if someone gets hurt it is their own fault. Relationships are fundamentally for mercenary reasons, to meet needs. People are consumers but also available to be used by others. The person who maximizes the utility of others without getting hurt wins.
Which Way Is It?
If there is a part of the Bible that epitomizes Sara’s complaint about religion limiting freedom it is the passage we have this morning. In Numbers 25 Israelite men gets polyamorous in a patriachal polygamous kind of way only to find that women have influence too, and in this case religious influence. In the previous section King Balak tried to destroy Israel by divination. It seems Balak was looking to the wrong place. Israel will destroy herself and probably doesn’t need any help from Balak and Balaam. This is the consistent story of humanity.
This story makes bookends with the Golden Calf story in Exodus. God does the heavy lifting of saving and protecting Israel, only to have her squish out the bottom destroying herself. These two are the only episode in the desert wandering stories of Israel going after formal idolatry, Golden Calves and now Baal who would haunt Israel for centuries to come in Canaan.
Midrash Looked for Someone to Blame
Midrash was the Jewish tradition of exegeting and preaching on these texts often by filling in stories. Midrash imagined that Balak and Balaam conspired after divination failed to send in the women to corrupt Israel. The Biblical has no such story and in fact places the blame on the Israelite men. The text says that the men “prostituted themselves” by going after Moabite women and in the process attached themselves to Baal. This “prostituting themselves” would be a common way of describing how Israel would sell herself to spiritual masters in order to secure power, wealth, security and status. Balak was dim. Moab didn’t need to destroy Israel, just assimilate her.
Sara Burrows would have assumed that the patriachal text would have blamed the women and seen them as property and powerless. It actually sees the men as having the weakness and the women as being powerful at achieving their goals of affluence, prosperity and security by offering pretty much what Sara Burrows is offering. Both genders seem to be getting what they want out of the relationships.
Things Fall Apart
What happens next is total chaos.
- God tells Moses to hold the leaders accountable by foisting them up on impaling gallows, exposing them to the sun as a sin offering for the people
- Moses seemingly ignores the command and instead tells the leaders to kill the people who have pledged themselves to the Baal of Peor
- At that moment an Israelite tribal prince parades a Midianite tribal princess before the assembly and brings her into a conjugal tent to do what everyone expects thus cementing the political, familial and religious bonds that will make Israel just another part of the political, social and religious environment. This is the undoing of not just the Exodus but the giving of the law and the 42 years in the desert. This, far more than armies, is the end of God’s mission through Israel to the world.
- Phinehas takes a spear, goes into the tent and runs it through both of them, in the act, right through their privates and into the ground
- Now we get notified of a plague killing tens of thousands in Israel. Phinehas’ action were to stop the plague. This becomes an archetypal story for Israel about zeal. Phinehas is lauded for his zeal and this story will be remembered.
- Midian then becomes the enemy of Israel
There are other complexities in the story too. We’re tempted to read the story as a simple on of achieving ethnic and religious purity through violence. You can’t read the story without other stories.
- Moses himself married and Midianite woman, and his father-in-law seemed to be one of these priests that looked to and spoke of Yhwh
- Moses’ ignoring God’s direct command here gets ignored, unlike what happened with the water and the rock story a bit ago.
- This becomes the last story of the rebellious generation before the new generation takes over. Numbers 26 has the genealogy expressing that transition.
How to Read This Difficult Passage
This passage became an important one because Phinehas’ example came to define “zeal”. Most of the time you see the word “zeal” in the Bible it will have passage as its background and became justification for a lot of violence to come.
The closest thing we might be able to associate it with today in the news is ISIS killing infidels. We should also associate it with the Apostle Paul before his road to Damascus conversion. His zeal for the LORD brought him to hunt down, imprison and kill followers of Jesus.
The difficulty with zealotry was that it quickly became a lose cannon firing in all directions. It became a pretext for using violence to try to secure they way that any individual thought was right.
When we read a difficult passage like this we need to be a bit careful about the “take away”. “Look, God approved of people who sleep with the wrong sorts of people (often a local conflict takes over” and that justifies what we do against them. This is why it’s important to read this text within the context of the rest of the story. Zealotry would become a very mixed bag.
In our context it is easy to dismiss all zealotry, except perhaps the zealotry against zealotry. Are we able to see that many of our high minded ideals are self-serving?
The Mysterious Mercy of God
At least as disturbing as the zealotry is both what God does here and doesn’t do here. our judgment usually reflect our own zealotry. If what we see as catastrophe falls and God doesn’t act he’s too passive and negligent. If God does act he’s intrusive, abusive, violent, petty and controlling. Any god that does not mirror what we imagine needs to happen is a god we will have issues with.
In this passage God both demands an ultimate and brutal remedy to the catastrophe to his mission (the overbearing God), and then let’s rebellion even on this count slide (the passive God.)
God tells Moses to impale the leaders. Moses seems to completely ignore the command only to give another that the leaders must deliver summary execution on those they see tying themselves to Baal. A few chapters ago Moses is denied access to the promised land for hitting a rock rather than speaking to it and now God completely ignores this command?
If you read the Bible these kinds of stories pop up all the time. Sometimes God is severe and quick to judgment, other times he seems merciful and perhaps even lax.
As a child I always read the story of the Fall with wonder. Didn’t God say to Adam and Eve “on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die!” and didn’t the serpent say “you won’t die” and they didn’t die, so who was right?
In the story of David and Bathsheba God is both shocking that he would come down so hard on what would have been rather normal behavior for a king, to take whatever woman he wished even at the death of her husband (see Abraham in this situation with two kings). Yet when God acts in judgment he spares David’s life.
Theologians of course go off from there and talk about all sort of things but you see this in other places. What I have to re-calibrate is how I imagine God to work. God is seen as free to judge and this bothers us greatly. We want God to behave like a machine, to be predictable to us, which really means subject to us. We are offended by the idea that even in God’s judgments he expresses his freedom and that our estimations of his judgments and justice must submit finally to his mind.
In this passage we see the seriousness that God approached this with, but also the mysterious and sometimes silent mercy of his restraint.
The Wages of Sin is Death
The Apostle Paul will write “the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” and it’s that wages part I want us to pause on. Paul says basically that sin brings outcomes and that outcome is death. One of the things we ponder when we look at all the rebellion stories in Numbers is why Israel keeps messing up. The answer should be obvious, because they were like we are.
Another dynamic we see in the Bible is the acts of God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the new as a kind of fast-forwarding of the slow process we normally experience in creation. Jesus turns water to wine, multiplies loaves and fishes, stills a storm, in a sense does what would take a lot of time and by compressing it makes the normal grace of God abnormally vivid so we can learn.
I think the stories of God ravaging Israel with a plague and it stopping are similar things. In this special situation God decided not to simply let Israel fall away slowly, something that might have taken years or even generations. In these chaotic events God saves Israel from certain disaster just as much as he did in dealing with Balak and Balaam, that is why the stories are right next to each other and have so many ties together. In that context Phinehas is praised also for doing something in an archetypal way. Phinehas in what he did in fact violated the law as many Jewish scholars had noted. What Phinehas did in some ways was parallel to Moses striking the rock instead of talking to it, but in this case Phinehas is lauded and rewarded. Phinehas, part of the new generation, integral to the overall theme of Numbers, begins to know the mind of God and act on his behalf, not unlike Moses in the Golden Calf story.
Leaders and Interceders
One of the lessons that comes out of this story is that of leaders. It is noteworthy that right away God holds the leaders accountable and his command is that they be made a public example by executing them in a form that would have a lot in common with crucifixion in Jesus’ day. The means by which God wanted to make a point to the people in that day was very similar to what the Romans and many other empires would use.
How this unfolds, however, is important. Moses’ disobedience which is not taken up by God in this story seemed to bend towards mercy just as Phinehas was bent towards wrath. Moses, as he had done in other situations in the desert wanderings seems to become a partner with God that helps God NOT do what God shouldn’t do and God will accept him as this. Sometimes God wants to destroy Israel and Moses pleads their case. Moses again and again is an intercessor and appeals to God’s mercy. Abraham plays a similar role when God tells him what he’s about to do to Sodom and Gomorrah.
It is notable that despite the command to impale the leaders given by God, and the command to kill the men who had bound themselves to Baal given by Moses, the two individuals who were executed were both leaders, one man and one woman. It was their blood that stopped the plague.
Ending the Plague of the Age of Decay
I noted before that this story, as many others in the Bible sees God speeding up time or making archetypal statements.
The slow catastrophe of Israel is emblematic of life in this world.
- Small sins, as known by the people of Abilene Kansas have large consequences later on
- Our own weaknesses are usually what undo us in the end
- Our drive to secure prosperity, security and happiness bring us to use others in ways that start small and grow large
- This is the way of the world, the source of our misery, and what God was working to undo through Israel
How can God stop the plague? God both must judge but also save. How can this be done?
God demands that the leaders be foisted up on poles to demonstrate and expiate the sin of the people. Moses flips the leadership script to spare the leaders at the expense of those beneath them. Phinehas decides that one public, immediate, sacrifice must be made. The plague is halted, the death of a generation complete, and the mission will go on to live another day, only to finally fail in Israel again as it prostitutes itself to Baals once more.
Christians believe the shape of the ultimate resolution is outlined even in this story.
If we look to God’s command for a public execution to stop the broader plague, the global plague, the slower plague, the plague of all plague, it is of course God’s Son that is the victim, but in that case an innocent one. He is killed by us, in our zeal, not for God’s holiness as much as for our own autonomy and rebellion which we understand and freedom. God himself provides the victim and becomes our victim.
Misery: Not What Our Hands Can Do
We began by seeing that culturally we imagined we could rescue ourselves by taking sin very seriously. Sin should be taken serious and the old cultural consensus that the world is morally, spiritually and socially hazardous was right it is.
The new social imaginary saw the flaws in that old system. Mere restraint or even sober zeal enforced in the name of restraint did not yield the prosperity, security and happiness we desire, so we flip the script and try the expressive approach. I’ll suggest that this effort will fail too. Human history is a story of going from one approach to the other, back and forth, trying to secure it.
The Christian story says that both our hazardous universe and the hazard without ourselves are both beyond us. That nothing short of divine intervention is needed. The final remedy is not foisting the leaders, summary execution of the people, or even emblematic example making of the obvious rebels, it is the Son of God and Son of Man foisted on a cross by our zealotry, executed on our behalf, and then risen to rain by God.
The shape of our zeal is now reshaped by Jesus. When he turned his face to Jerusalem he expressed the zeal of Phinehas in the temple but then he took the place of the leaders on the pole. This will be the shape of Christian living. It makes no sense apart from the resurrection. It is in fact sacrifice that energizes us, but not in the ways we imagine. It is the grateful sacrifice of seeking the well-being of others at our own expense.